The Dormitory of Wandering Souls
By Raquelle Azran
Once upon a time, but not so very long ago, a university campus held court in the ancient city of Jerusalem. Low stone buildings nestled among rolling green hills, overlooking the Israel Museum and the garden neighborhoods of Bet Hakerem and Nayot. There were no gates and no security fences. Students entered the campus from all directions, strolling on the shaded walkways and lolling on the grass before and after classes. Israel was basking in the afterglow of the Six Day War. The campus was a world of openness, and all were invited.
The study halls were concentrated on one end of the campus, and on the other end were the dormitories. Dormitory space was much in demand. Israeli students filled the dorms to bursting, enjoying the luxuries of central hot water and heating which most Jerusalem homes, in those days, lacked. Whenever a bed became vacant, there were ten or twenty applicants eager to immediately move in. So when the university established a program for foreign students, it was decided to allocate them a special dormitory, slightly behind the other buildings and half-hidden by gnarled olive trees.
From the outside, the building looked the same as all the others – a one story rectangular house built of chiseled rose-colored Jerusalem stone. Inside as well, there was the same communal kitchen with its wall of stainless steel refrigerators, enamel sink and electric hotplates, the same bare bathrooms and showers, the same dorm rooms with twin beds, two desks, two closets and one fluorescent bulb hanging from the ceiling. But if you were one of the fortunate souls in that dorm, you knew right away that it was special.
None of us in the dorm had planned to be there. Born in New York, in London, in Paris, in South Africa, we were flower children, hippies, revolutionaries in the making. Most of us had left home and had non-Jewish friends. We had not the slightest interest in Israel. But our parents had somehow heard about the university’s program for foreign students and embraced it as their last chance to save us from ourselves. They offered us a year in Israel as an all-paid adventure, and adventurous (and broke) is one thing we all were. We grabbed the air tickets and packed our bags, but upon landing in the Holy Land, promptly forgot about the university in Jerusalem. The beaches were in Elat, the bars in Tel Aviv never closed, the Golan was great for hiking, and sexy Israeli soldiers - men and women - were everywhere.
Soon the gentle reminders arrived. Felice heard a rumor on the beach. Larry found an anonymous note in his backpack, and I saw a notice on the library bulletin board. Alain was whispered the address by a flight attendant. Molly discovered directions in her diary. Gail never could remember how she heard or from whom. One by one, we straggled into the dorm. Surprised to find the dormitory building and the rooms inside unlocked, each of us claimed a space, unpacked our bags and settled in.
We were not a happy bunch. Felice, while hitchhiking in the south of France, had been raped and her hair burned by a sadistic truck driver, and considered herself lucky to be alive. Gail had been kicked out of her home by her stepfather, and was living on the streets. Alain was on probation for having run over a pedestrian while drunk. Larry was a dropout from two Ivy League colleges, Molly refused to speak to her family, the two twin brothers from California insisted they had no names other than Bro One and Bro Two, and as for me, well I had a few problems of my own. Leaving home at fifteen, I’d seen more street action than the average cop, and so as not to incriminate myself, let’s leave it at that.
As the days passed, we realized that the university seemed to have forgotten about our building. The rooms were not cleaned, no mail was delivered and the telephone in the entrance never rang. Even stranger was the fact that other than ourselves, no one entered the dorm. The days melted into a ritual of cafeteria, lawn lounging and occasional classes. From the shelter of our dorm, we often heard footsteps on the path and laughter from nearby buildings, but the footsteps always continued on past. We were puzzled. Everywhere on campus, we saw and were seen by our classmates, but once we crossed the threshold and entered our dorm, we were invisible.
And then we noticed the hum. It was a gentle hum that filled the silence, especially at dusk and at dawn. It felt soothing, like an incantation. We found ourselves quieting in anticipation, eagerly awaiting the sound. It sounded to me like murmuring water. Molly said it reminded her of a nursery rhyme. Bros One and Two were sure it was a surfer version of the Avinu Malkeinu Yom Kippur prayer. Felice reported her nightmares had ended. Larry registered for the accelerated doctoral program. We were inexplicably happy.
On Rosh Hodesh Kislev, the birthday of Rabbi Hillel the Elder and a day considered holy by Chabad Hassidim, the building began its nightly journeys. Up it rose, with us sleeping sweetly in our beds, only to be woken by a rhythmic rocking as we levitated over the Valley of the Cross, turned south to Bethlehem, swooped low over King Solomon’s pools and finally glided back to our olive grove. Molly called her parents to tell them she was thinking of making Aliyah. Bros One and Two confided that their real names were Ephraim and Menashe, and exchanged their sneakers for Biblical sandals.
Alain and I, staunch disbelievers, held out until Passover. But when Elijah the Prophet glided into the dorm kitchen, slurped wine from his special cup and wished us ‘hag sameach’, we were forced to acknowledge that our world had expanded to include our Jewish past. Maybe our parents had guided us to a true thing, we wondered aloud. Perhaps Israel was indeed the home for wandering Jews.
Although we had made a pact not to share our experiences with outsiders, the news of our wondrous nightly voyages spread through the campus. Large crowds camped out on the lawn, clamoring to join our group. Students who attempted to climb up the dormitory walls after dark were invisibly rebuffed. In our sweet sleep, as we levitated over the Judean Hills, we heard the faint thuds of their falling bodies.
The campus doctor arrived, unannounced, and pronounced us afflicted with Jerusalem Syndrome, known to cause hallucinations in visitors to the Holy City. We protested that we were not visitors but official dormitory residents. The campus rabbi showed up and accused us of heresy. How dare we claim to have spoken with Elijah the Prophet, he roared, when he and the entire rabbinic establishment still yearned for a moment of revelation.
As we soared in sleep over Jericho one cloudless night, we dreamt we heard the walls falling to the blare of Joshua’s trumpet. Arising in the morning, we were astonished to find the dormitory doors barricaded shut. We still had access to the roof, and parcels of food were delivered daily by campus police, but we could no longer leave or enter the dorm. A contingent of university officials informed us that as soon as the academic year ended, we would be forcibly ejected.
Seven weeks after Passover, when the counting of the Omer was complete, we celebrated Shavuot. In the Holy City of Jerusalem, where Jews are commanded to celebrate the dual gifts of the Torah and the harvest, we dressed in flowing white robes, wove wreaths of flowers in our hair, linked arms and danced on the roof of our dorm.
From afar we heard voices. The voices grew louder until they were directly underneath. As loudly as we sang, we could not drown out the hate in their voices, taunting us, mocking us, telling us we were not wanted, that we did not belong. That Israel needed soldiers and farmers, not dreamers. That Israel needed land and labor. That we were evil influences and malicious spirits, and that this was not our home.
The crowd surrounded the dormitory, shoving the barricades and shattering the windows. As the stone walls creaked and groaned in protest, we felt ourselves lifted gently into the clouds. Away from the menacing crowd, away from the barricades, our dormitory gently glided through the night, seeking a more welcoming home for wandering souls.
Copyright © Raquelle Azran 2011
Raquelle Azran divides her time between three cities: Hanoi, where she specializes in Vietnamese contemporary fine art (www.artnet.com/razran.html), Tel Aviv, where she writes in her inner city aerie overlooking the Mediterranean, and her native New York.
Azran's short stories, creative non-fiction and essays have been published and anthologized in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Her writing explores the infinite varieties of voice: an unsophisticated office worker trapped in the Twin Towers (“Jumping to Conclusions”); a Biblical figure (“Lot’s Wife”), a feminist rewriting of the Biblical story); a food editor who recruits illegal immigrants to do her Hanukkah donut tasting (“Spirit of the Maccabees”); a suave lawyer undone by baby clothing (“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”); and an IDF commander torn between human instincts and military responsibilities (“By the Roadblock of Bethlehem”).